Ads are generally known for trying to grab their viewers’ attention, yet online ads have counterintuitively evolved to blend-in with the content on a platform. Google ads look like search results, Facebook ads look like user posts, Amazon ads look like products, and newer platforms like Snapchat and Tiktok are built on the same principle. Overall, online ads are converging towards native advertising: advertising that matches the form and function of the platform on which it appears. 

Why would making an ad blend-in make it more effective? Because internet users have learned to ignore ads outright, but content that doesn’t look like an ad bypasses that reflex.

From native ads to native creative

While ad formats have evolved towards native advertising, the look of an ad is ultimately determined by the creatives that the advertiser uploads. The natural extension of native ad formats is native creative: ad creatives that match the organic content on the platform on which they appear.

The concept isn’t necessarily new, it’s one that David Ogilvy embraced in some of his magazine ads by making them look like editorial articles:

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As he says in Ogilvy on Advertising, “there is no law which says that advertisements have to look like advertisements. If you make them look like editorial pages, you will attract more readers.

The key in that quote is the first sentence: ads don’t need to look like ads.

It’s a concept that’s often overlooked, I believe for two reasons:

•    Advertisers tend to set out to make “nice ads”, which comes with all the biases of what ads are supposed to look like.

•    When advertisers are presented with a new channel, their first instinct is to start with creatives that have performed well in the past. Yet the context in which the ad is delivered can be different from your current channels, making what is native creative on one channel an obtrusive ad on another. For example, many CPG companies port their TV ads over to Facebook, despite the two contexts being totally different:

To fully leverage native ad formats, the creative needs to match the platform too. Start then by asking the question: how do we make ad creatives that match the organic content on the platform on which they appear?

For example, what would native creative look like on social channels like Facebook? Scrolling down your Facebook/Instagram feeds, there’s likely a distribution of the following:

•    User-generated content, i.e. what friends and family are posting

•    Memes, funny videos, etc.

•    News and articles

1. User-generated content

I.e. ads that look like (or actually were) made by users.

There are many ways to leverage this format: copy written from the user perspective, unedited videos of products, captions with the same design as organic content, etc. Ads like the above that I’ve run performed almost twice as well as more brand-heavy ads, especially on younger platforms like Snapchat and Tiktok.

At its core, influencer marketing is very similar to this – ads that look like they’re organic posts by users you follow. The challenge with influencer though was the difficulty to drive ROI, because tracking can be difficult, costs are quite high, and organic posts are more ephemeral than ads. An approach I’ve increasingly seen is to use influencer marketing both as its own channel and as a way to make new creative. By negotiating the right to use the influencer’s post in ads, the decrease in CPI from running it as an ad often makes the initial cost of the post well worth it.

2. Memes as ads

The massive organic reach of meme pages is a testament to how effective of a format they are on social channels. While memes might not fit the brand guidelines of every advertiser, I’ve seen it perform well for brands that embrace it.

There are a few models for memes as ads – running them from your own page is the easiest for measuring performance and getting ROI, but brands like Hinge also use popular meme pages as the platform for their meme ads.

3. Articles and news

These types of ads are most commonly used on networks like Taboola and Outbrain, but are now more commonly used in paid social as well. They fit the format that Buzzfeed thrived on – easy to consume, clickbait articles.

I’ve also seen brands run these ads through publisher pages to give them an added sense of legitimacy, like Endy in the example above.

These ads often look like articles down to the landing page, which has the added benefit of leaving plenty of room for copy. For more examples, Adam Lovallo has a great write-up on testing articles as landing pages.

Adding native creative to your portfolio

The main goal of native creative is to bypass people’s reflex to ignore ads outright and get them to actually consider your message. Browsing ads in competitive spaces like gaming or shopping will make it obvious though that native creative is not the only type of ad that achieves that. Even the “wait what?” category of ads, like Wish featuring someone pouring marinara sauce on a cable holder or baking a rug in the oven, presumably works because it forces your attention.

While native creative isn’t a requirement, it serves as a framework for finding new ideas for creative. The largest improvements in ad performance often come from testing concepts that are radically different from what you’re currently doing, and using native creative unlocks a whole new category of ideas to try.

At Hopper, using native creative made the trend in our CPI looks more like a step function than a curve, where you can clearly see when new creative concepts were introduced. Our portfolio is also more diverse than before, making creative fatigue much easier to avoid.

All of those new ads came from asking ourselves the same question: how do we make ad creatives that match the organic content on the platform on which they appear?

Balancing native creative with branding

A common concern about trying native creative is that it will be off-brand.

First, for early-stage companies (with <10% brand recognition), performance-focused ads won’t have much brand-building effect unless you have significant budgets. In making a tradeoff between how on-brand an ad is and how it performs, consider whether you’d be better off getting more people to interact with your brand by clicking on the ad. There’s no use in having an on-brand ad that nobody remembers: being on your landing page, seeing your products, and making a purchase are all more effective ways to influence someone’s perception of your brand than getting an ad impression.

That doesn’t mean you should completely disregard how your ad reflects on your brand. A lot of concern around native creative stems from seeing low-quality native ads that degrade a brand’s image. Making spammy ads is lazy, and while it can produce a temporary bump in performance, it’s a losing strategy long-term. Native creative is about making ads that feel natural, not low-quality.

It’s also worth noting that native creative doesn’t need to be off-brand. Even starting by using your brands’ fonts and colours can help a native ad feel closer to your brand guidelines:

There are also plenty of native creative styles that don’t involve user-generated ads, memes or articles. Rather than dismissing native creative outright, try to come up with concepts that strike the balance between being native and on-brand: maybe it’s matching a style of content that’s going viral (like bar chart races, or ASMR), an in-podcast ad that sounds like an interview, in-game ads with a gameplay preview, or even going back to the Ogilvy model of editorial ads in magazines.

Either way, if you start by asking how you can make ads that match the organic content on their platform, you’re likely to find at least one idea that allows you to boost performance while adhering to your brand.

Towards fewer marketers, with more impact

Native creative tends to be easy to make, which puts some power back into the hands of marketers: rather than needing designers to make pixel-perfect ads, anyone with the right ideas can create successful campaigns.

In parallel, user acquisition as a whole is becoming more automated. Larger ad networks like Facebook and Google are abstracting away the details of targeting and optimization, making the performance of your ad mostly dependent on the creative and the bid.

With creatives getting easier to make, and managing ads becoming less manual, marketers have an unprecedented level of autonomy. Companies that used to require teams of ad buyers and designers can now deploy multimillion dollar budgets with a single full-stack marketer.

The corollary is that the expectations for marketers are higher – more autonomy implies a broader set of skills needed to be competitive. And as making great creative becomes the most important lever for ad performance, it’ll increasingly become an important skill for marketers to develop.

Use native creative as a competitive advantage then, to drive ad performance, and to do so autonomously.

Any feedback? Let me know at hello@makotork.com!

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